So there we sat in the car, in the middle of a village, in the Khandamal district of Orissa state. Our local friend asked us to stay in the car as it could cause problems if a couple of pale faced guys were to show themselves in public. As I sat there and felt the tension on the outside of the car my thoughts wandered to the day before when I had visited a temple in the state capitol of Bhubaneswar. The statue at the temple depicted a blue goddess with four arms, two of which held a severed head and a bowl in which to catch the blood from it. Around the goddess’ neck hung a garland of severed heads. Her tongue was long and red and hung out of her mouth between her two prominent fangs. Kali, creator and destroyer and cleanser of evil.
It was Kali the destroyer that went through my mind as I sat in the car. We were now in a part of Orissa that had only a couple of months earlier been witness to riots that saw more than 100 people murdered, 18,000 injured and 50,000 displaced, most of them Christians; Dalits and Adivasis. We were there to visit some of the displaced and try to gain some understanding of what had really transpired.
Travelling from village to village we noticed a pattern. On the road in and out of each village we saw that large trees had recently been cut down or large boulders lay strewn along the side of the road. When we asked why these were there we were told that that was how the attackers could ensure that they had the greatest impact when they attacked the villages. Trees were cut down or boulders rolled into place across the entrance and exit to the villages in order to prevent villagers from fleeing quickly with vehicles. Their only chance of escape was on foot the through the forest.
In one interview we talked with a widow who watched with her three children as a mob beat her husband and mother –in-law unconscious then poured kerosene over them and set them on fire. A local Catholic priest we talked with described how attackers would choose which house to attack based on prior information, sparing Hindu homes while attacking Christian homes. The attackers also were aware of an obscure law that carries a heavier penalty for destroying someone’s property inside the person’s house than for doing the same damage outside the person’s house. That explained why we had seen so many belongings lying outside people’s homes.
I’d like to say that this story has a happy ending, but I can’t. Today, nearly eight years after the attacks very little justice has been served. Few have been convicted. Many fear to return to their homes and even fewer have received any form of adequate compensation.
So what’s the moral? I’m not sure there is one. Many might jump to the conclusion that this is just one more example of the evil of all religion; adherents of one religious group terrorizing, harassing and killing adherents of another. Others might jump to the opposite conclusion and say that situations like this have absolutely nothing to do with religion. They are about poverty, and political balance and access to natural resources or the like. So which is it? Is religion the source of all evil or never (or at least very seldom) the source of evil? After many years of travelling, observing and interviewing people first-hand about violence, injustice, harassment and discrimination, I’ve come to see that the world is seldom black and white. Where people bump into each other there will be struggles for power and influence. Religion (or ideology – we mustn’t forget that millions of people died or were murdered in the 20th century in countries that advocated atheist ideologies) plays an important part in the lives of most people on the planet. Religion is seldom the only ingredient and it is also seldom absent from the recipe.
So all you changeologists out there, let’s roll up our sleeves and get busy with trying to make the world a better place for everyone. And let’s not solely blame religion nor solely extol the virtues of religion, but rather acknowledge the place of religion as a potentially important (among several) source of conflict and as an equally potentially important resource (among several) for peace.